In just a little while I’ll be doing the funeral of Nancy LeSac, a faithful and courageous church member who died on Monday morning after a long struggle with brain cancer. Her story reminded me of Joyce Maye, a member of my church in Wingate, North Carolina, who died after a very similar struggle. I found the text of the message I delivered at her funeral and wanted to share an excerpt here as a reminder that even—and perhaps especially—in tragic circumstances, the gospel is good news.
The writer of that great poem we call the Song of Solomon says that “love is strong as death” (8:6), and I almost believe that he is right. Love is strong! It can haul you out of the pit. It can put you on your feet again. It can set your heart soaring. It’s strong! But so is death. It can cut your legs out from under you. It can smash you to the ground. It can snuff your life out like a flame. When we think of how love makes us feel, and how the death of a loved one makes us feel, I think we can agree that Solomon understood something that is common to human experience. Love is strong as death and death is strong as love. Exactly as strong. The more love we have for someone the more it hurts when we lose them. The less love we have the less it hurts.
In Joyce’s case this harmless piece of poetry becomes a terrifying equation. She was so easy to love that many of us—most of you here—developed a love for her that was unusually strong. As a consequence, the fact of her death has hit us with such force that we don’t know if we will be able to stand up against it.
When I heard the news I was at Travis Family Restaurant, having lunch with my friend Jim Eastin. A waitress came to tell me I had a telephone call and Christy, in a broken voice, broke the news to me. I came back to the table and sat down hard, feeling the color drain from my face as I did so. Jim tried to resume our conversation but suddenly stopped, reached out to touch my arm, and said, “Are you all right?” “I don’t know,” I said, finally. “I don’t know.”
For the rest of that day that’s how it was for me. Love and death had collided at full speed, and the wreckage was everywhere. I went to be with the family but I don’t know how much help I was. After the initial hugs and condolences I simply sat at the kitchen counter, sighing and shaking my head.
If all we could depend on was our own love in time of death we might never know if we were going to be all right. Love and death are equally matched; it could go either way. But at the foundation of our faith is the truth that God has added to our love his own. “God loved us so much,” The Bible says, “that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In other words the force of God’s love, in combination with ours, is too much for death. What once looked like an even match becomes suddenly, miraculously, one-sided, and death doesn’t stand a chance. “O death, where is your victory?” Paul says. “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). And as death lies dying at our feet he shouts, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:57).
What all this means is that Joyce was right when she said to me, more than two years ago, “I believe I’m going to be all right.” By virtue of the strong love and amazing grace of God she is all right this morning. Strong as death is it will never be strong enough to snuff out the light that was and is…